Although Minnesota did not pass a bill legalizing sports gambling during the last session, many think it’s just a matter of time before it happens. With an eye toward the future – and an eye on the experiences of several other states who have legalized sports gambling – we talked to problem gambling leaders in Pennsylvania and Ohio for their observations and warnings. The next issue of Northern Light will highlight the sports gambling experiences of Michigan and New Jersey.
In Pennsylvania, retail sports betting debuted in November 2018, followed by the introduction of online and mobile options beginning in May 2019. What started as a relatively small piece of legislation to modernize the helpline ultimately grew to include online lottery games, fantasy sports and truck stop video gaming terminals (essentially small casinos). The bill also authorized airport gambling but that is not available yet.
Growth in sports gambling in the state has been astronomical. In 2019, the handle – the amount of money bet/put at risk – was $1.5 billion. By 2022, the handle was $7.25 billion, which represents roughly one percent of Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product. (Prior to sports gambling expansion, Pennsylvania gambling revenue (all forms) was $3.1 billion. By 2022, revenue passed the $5 billion mark, with the growth in sports gambling cited as a major reason.)
Helpline calls have also gone up markedly in Pennsylvania. In the first year, with just a few months of both brick-and-mortar and online sports gambling, there were 30 calls. In 2022, there were more than 300 calls specifically for sports gambling. Overall call volume (for all forms of gambling) has also increased, going from an average of about 1100 prior to gambling expansion to more than 1200 through the middle of 2023.
“In addition to the uptick in problems related to sports betting, this increase might also be related to wider advertising of the helpline number,” says Josh Ercole, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania. “It’s possible that folks have been struggling for a while and just now are learning that help is available.”
In general, Josh was pleased with precautionary measures that accompanied Pennsylvania’s legalization of sports gambling. “We asked for a lot — and got close to everything.”
However, with the benefit of hindsight, Josh wishes that more attention was paid to the language of advertising, specifically the mention of “no-risk bets” that really aren’t. He also wishes that — at least in the beginning — consumers who opened accounts were made more aware of the capability of adding limits to their betting. However, as of several months ago, when new bettors sign up, they are made more aware of how they can govern their play.
Josh feels that the culture for the gambling industry has begun to change, and is at least partly attributable to the growth in sports gambling. “I think the industry sees that gambling problems are not sustainable and they want to address responsible gambling as part of the culture,” says Josh.
Josh also feels that it’s important for states to learn from other states. “In Pennsylvania we were able to look at other states with casinos and online regulations. We’re also fortunate that the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is always looking for new possibilities and regulations to implement to emphasize player protection.”
A wide-ranging sports gambling bill was signed by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine in December 2021, and went into effect on January 1, 2023. Notably, the bill stipulated a universal start for all forms of sports gambling: mobile sports, brick-and-mortar sports books, and sports betting kiosks (primarily bars, restaurants and bowling alleys) licensed by the Ohio Lottery.
During the first month (January 2023), the handle for sports gambling was approximately $1 billion. It has since subsided but is expected to pick up again in the fall.
Gambling advertising blanketed all outlets. “It didn’t matter whether you were watching television, streaming a station or listening to the radio,” says Derek Longmeier, executive director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio.
Derek notes that one piece the Ohio legislation got right was having firm guidelines for marketing. Advertisers couldn’t promote risk-free bets unless they were truly risk-free, and every ad was required to detail a state or national gambling helpline clearly and conspicuously.
The Ohio bill set aside two percent of gambling tax revenue (which initially was set at 10 percent but later increased to 20 percent) for problem gambling efforts managed by the state gambling commission. The bill also allowed Ohio colleges and universities to collect data to analyze the impact of sports betting on student gambling. Ohio also prohibited gambling advertising on college and university campuses, the first state in the country to do so.
There has been a substantial increase in helpline calls in Ohio since the introduction of legalized sports gambling. In the first month (January 2023) of sports gambling, there were about 1500 calls, compared to under 500 calls in January 2022. The October-December 2022 period also saw a record high number of calls.
Derek says it’s not clear that the increase in helpline calls correlates directly with sports gambling. “Because of marketing, the helpline was more visible on all advertising, so it’s possible that more gamblers, not just sports gamblers, sought help for the first time.”
Looking back on Ohio’s process, Derek thinks a phased-in approach might have been better than a universal start date. The state gambling commission was under considerable pressure to write rules while also doing compliance checks for numerous operators. Derek also feels that consumer access — which went from literally nothing to everything overnight — didn’t allow new consumers to become well educated about gambling.
Problem gambling advocates in Ohio sought to exclude sports betting ads on professional athlete’s jerseys but were not successful. (A compromise was a prohibition on youth jersey advertising.)
Derek also emphasizes that problem gambling advocacy organizations, such as MNAPG, should be aware of how little legislators might understand about sports gambling. “With legislators and in conversations, the response we often received was, ‘Wow, this was so much more complicated than we knew,’ says Derek. “Legislators often only hear from sports betting advocates about how great gambling will be. An important piece of work is to really showcase the importance of advocacy and having subject matter experts in the community share their thinking.”
Derek also encourages a focus on infrastructure so that all parts of a state are represented with certified gambling treatment counselors and to include appropriate telehealth options to communities challenged with identifying and cultivating counselors.